Put stock in a one-stop shop

Specialists predominate in London, but Guy Lane has kept different disciplines together to offer City-based clients an all-inclusive service

London is big on silos of expertise. Packaging, sales promotions, direct marketing, advertising, typography, magazine design, branding and digital, to name a few. That’s probably as it should be. Design is a cottage industry with lots of small players who are good at what they do.

Smaller cities or far-flung places have a more generalist approach. I recently attended a talk by Vince Frost, who is based in Sydney. He has a broad reach – identities, literature, environmental design, restaurant interiors, websites, ads and so on – it’s quite a nice approach and very unusual by London standards.

Aside from a creative desire for a bit of variety, there are a couple of reasons why silos can be damaging. First, it puts pressure on graduates and others entering the industry to choose the right silo for them. Second, clients have to navigate their way around a communications industry that is rather bad at communicating how it can help them. They usually end up being sold to by the specialist they happen to be talking to. After all, a typographer will tell a client he needs typography, not PR.

Brand consultancy, corporate design, reporting, digital, financial PR and public affairs are usually kept distinct, but there are examples of them being linked up.

Large ad groups such as WPP and Omnicom buy lots of specialists and do what they can to cross-fertilise. This doesn’t always work because they remain separate companies in separate places. So when these big groups say they’re fully integrated, in practice, they’re not.

When clients choose several specialists within one group it’s usually because the specialists are all good, not because they are subsumed under one powerful brand, or because the clients pack more buying clout.

There are smaller groups with added disciplines, but these are usually bolt-ons. Instances of fully integrated consultancies are quite rare.

In our case, setting up and integrating a corporate design group within a PR and communications consultancy in the City has had its challenges. After all, designers and PR people are quite different. But, if you have an open mind and recognise that everyone has something to offer, it can work well. It can also provide an interesting mix of creative and executive skills that appeals to clients and their advisors.

The City, unlike the West End, is not an obvious place to have a creative business. But, there are good opportunities as long as you talk the right language. Having City people who know the Square Mile well has made it easier to win the trust of clients and advisors and give them the right creative work. Corporate and financial design is quite technical. You need to know about the Yellow Book (Stock Exchange rules), Takeover Panel code, corporate reporting requirements and other bedtime reading. You need to know about the various types of advisor – corporate financiers, brokers, sell- and buy-side analysts, and so on. You also need access to good quality research and an understanding of how to analyse a company’s investment case.

To achieve all this it helps to have City professionals on your team. From their point of view, ‘Having the kaftans alongside the suits is an interesting cultural mix.’ Another says, ‘The creatives think like we do, but in technicolour.’

In our case, we have teams of ‘sector specialists’ who know ‘retail’ or ‘industrials’ or ‘financials’. They know the clients and advisors and can give real insights above and beyond a standard brief. They provide vital industry context and think of the things you don’t. They come from a variety of backgrounds – financial journalism, accountancy, law, banking, stockbroking and fund management.

We all work in one very big room. This helps enormously. I’m convinced that one reason multidisciplined companies don’t work is because the different disciplines never see each other working. We aim to achieve a marriage of business practicality and good creative craft. After all, good marriages can’t work when the individuals live in different homes. So the best thing to do to create a versatile group is to put everyone in one room.

Guy Lane is a partner of College Design

• Have an open mind/ City people are not ‘West End’
• Be collaborative: recognise that you are one of the advisors, not the only one
• Learn the rules or make friends with people who know them: the City is full of regulatory hurdles • Understand the pressures that other people are under: try to make their lives easier
• Under-promise and over-deliver: the City doesn’t like clients and advisors who don’t deliver
• Have a sense of humour – in stressful environments, this can be a very useful weapon

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